Thursday, March 31, 2016

Frontline: “Uncovering Saudi Arabia” (Hardcash Films, WGBH, PBS, March 29, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Loretta Lynn show KPBS ran a Frontline episode that proved unexpectedly interesting; “Uncovering Saudi Arabia,” about the attempts of Saudi dissidents to expose the kingdom’s poverty and corruption and the horribly repressive policies of the regime in repressing them, including executing dissidents (especially Shi’a clerics — Saudi Arabia has a Sunni Muslim majority and the royal family are hard-core Sunnis who run the country by the Wahhabi version of Sharia law, but the oil-rich areas in the East are largely Shi’a) like Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a Shi’a religious leader who was one of the victims of a mass execution of 47 people in January 2016. His nephew Ali Nimr was one of the key sources for this show until he himself was arrested and sentenced to death, though according to the final credit roll he remains alive and the Saudi government has said they don’t intend to kill him. Apparently this is one of the quirks of the Saudi legal system: they can arrest you, try you in secret, sentence you to death and then keep you alive but still in custody — or even alive and out of custody — but leave the death sentence hanging over you so they can kill you any time they want. Another Saudi dissident, Raif Badawi, became an international cause celebre when the government arrested him and gave him a 10-year sentence as well as 1,000 lashes (the Saudi government not only whips its enemies but does so in public and films it to intimidate the people into shutting up and not resisting) for running a blog that frequently posted secretly filmed footage (some of which appears in this film) of conditions in Saudi Arabia, including the poverty in which many of the kingdom’s residents live (despite Saudi Arabia’s famous status as the world’s number one oil producer) and the way women are hassled in shopping malls by the religious police (formally called the Society for the Preservation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice), leading to absurd images like the religious police stopping women in front of a Victoria’s Secret outlet in a mall in Riyadh and hassling them and threatening them with arrest for not being veiled.

Not much of this is surprising but it is an interesting account of how a major U.S. ally in the Middle East treats its citizens — and how determined the Saudi government in general and the recently crowned king, Salman (he replaced his brother Abdullah at age 79 — the nation’s founder, Ibn Saud, for some reason willed that his sons would succeed him in succession, so the kingdom has been ruled by seven of Saud’s sons in succession instead of allowing power to pass to the next generation — not even the next generation of the Saud family!), are to make sure no Arab Spring-style revolution happens in Saudi Arabia. Apparently there were hopes among young Saudis that Salman would be more liberal than his predecessor, and they were dashed just as thoroughly as the hopes of Syrians that Bashir al-Assad would be more liberal than his father Hafez when Hafez died and Bashir took over. Another activist profiled in Saudi Arabia Uncovered is Loujain Hathloul, who decided to commit civil disobedience by driving her car into Saudi Arabia from the more socially liberal United Arab Emirates — the Saudi ban on women driving has probably become more famous and attracted more media coverage than the ban on them voting (of course in an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia’s elections are pretty meaningless anyway). She was arrested almost immediately — and her car was destroyed — but later the government decided to liberalize slightly and allow a few women to run for local offices. Hathloul accordingly became a candidate — only to be ruled off the ballot by the religious authorities (somehow U.S. propaganda portrays the power of the clergy in Iran to rule on who can and can’t run for office as a horrible oppression but ignores the similar rule in our ally, Saudi Arabia!), though she intends to try again. The fact that the Arab Spring has been pretty much an historical disaster — it’s either produced failed states like Tunisia or Libya, or provoked counter-revolutions like the one that re-established the military dictatorship in Egypt — doesn’t help the odds for peaceful reform in Saudi Arabia. Nor does the awareness among U.S. policymakers of what Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in one of the Republican Presidential debates that, whatever they do to their own people, the specific interests of the United States in the Middle East (mainly oil and Israel) are better off with its countries ruled by people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Quadafi, Hosni Mubarak (and his current military successor, Sisi), Bashir al-Assad and the Saudi family.